“The Chrysanthemums” is a short story, written by John Steinbeck about how others people words and actions can kill someone from the inside. At the beginning, Elisa Allen, our main character, can be seen as a mere housewife who feels frustrated about her present life mostly because of the fact her husbands fails to understand her and admire her romantically. The only outlet for her frustration is her flower garden where she grows her beautiful chrysanthemums. As the story progresses, she changes to a self-assured woman after her conversation with the Tinker.
Finally, at the end of the story, Elisa grows older- not physically but mentally. John Steinbeck shows the true feelings of Elisa through the use of characterization, setting and symbolism. Characterization is the key to creating a good short story. “The Chrysanthemum” story seems to revolve around Elisa’s feelings and emotions. Elisa, at the beginning of the story, is dressed in a gardening costume which is used to cover up her femininity mostly because of the fact no one sees her as who she really is and that no one appreciates her work. Even Elisa’s husband, Henry, knows she is capable of so much more. Elisa also leads a lonely life, in terms of her feelings with human beings.
Her only true passion is for her garden, and when she is alone in the garden she is her truest self. As Henry had said, “a gift with things.” This gift, this oneness with her chrysanthemums, is her source of strength.
In fact, several times throughout the story, Steinbeck comments on her strength. As she works in the garden, her face is “lean and strong” and she uses “strong fingers.” Also as Elisa was working, she heard squeaky noises which came from the Tinker’s wagon. The Tinker is an old man who had had a hard life, which is justified by the way his eyes are dark, and he is an outcast from society which can be reinforced by the line, “a lean and rangy mongrel dog”. He goes around America fixing other people’s merchandise and there is irony associated with the Tinker- if he fixes things, why is he not able to fix the squeaky sounds coming from his wagon? This shows that the Tinker does not put time and effort into his work, but he can be very good with words because when he described Elisa’s chrysanthemums as a “quick puff of coloured smoke”, she suddenly feels good about what she has accomplished. In fact she feels so good about herself and the conversation that she gave the Tinker a red flower pot with chrysanthemums- a symbol of her inner self.
After the Tinker leaves, Elisa suddenly feels new hope for herself and her marriage. Also, the Tinker has an inescapable charm within him, which causes Elisa to break down her walls, which then leads to a ‘heartbreak’. Henry, on the other hand, has no charm whatsoever, which is shown when he complimented Elisa by stating, “you look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon”. He seems like he loves Elisa, despite the fact she mystifies him. Setting plays a vital role in every story. The story unfolds from an incentive cinematic perspective, as Steinbeck first describes the entire rural valley in a panoramic view, then moves closer to focus on the ranch in the Salinas Valley, and then moves in for a close-up of Elisa working in her garden. This story also takes place in the past, the year 1938 to be precise.
It is a male-dominated society, one at which men own everything and do all the decision making, which can be reinforced by the phrase “Henry Allen’s Foothill”. However, there are exceptions. Firstly, Elisa owns the garden, not Henry. Secondly, Elisa got power over Henry when they were getting dressed to go for dinner, but she ‘lost’ that power when she saw her chrysanthemums laying at the side of a road. Afterwards, she had an emotional breakdown, and to make matters worse the Tinker kept the pot that held her chrysanthemums, showing how the Tinker used her for only fifty cents and that Elisa just wasn’t worth it- just like every woman imprisoned in a male-dominated society.
The farm itself is also very important to the story. This allows Elisa to be isolated from outside views and perspectives and later on, allows Elisa to be influenced by the Tinker.Symbolism is very important when creating a deep story, that if it is read by some silly amateur they simply would not get what it means.
The image of weather in Salinas Valley figures importantly in the story’s symbolism. Just as the fog, described as a “gray-flannel,” has settled over the valley as if it were a lid on a pot – the lid at which keeps tension in, Elisa seems to be enclosed inside the wire fence that keeps animals and certain people from her garden and at which it holds her most precious babies – the chrysanthemums. The barrier also allows us to conclude that the Tinker got closer to Elisa than anyone has ever had, even her own husband. Steinbeck uses the chrysanthemums as symbols of Elisa’s inner self and of every woman. Elisa also feels emotionally enclosed in her garden- this is the only place in Salinas Valley or even perhaps Earth where Elisa is happy and her truest self. While Henry may love Elisa, he has little understanding of her needs as a woman, thus he will be unable to cheer up or fix Elisa when she needs it most.
After reading “The Chrysanthemums” it can be seen how Steinbeck used characterization, setting, and symbolism to show Elisa’s inner feelings while enhancing his story as a whole. He takes time to develop his characters which add necessary background and aids that improve the story. The setting creates the story itself because if it wasn’t a male-dominated society, Elisa would most likely not be in her garden. Finally, symbolism adds depth to Steinbeck’s piece.
On the surface of the story, it seems as if Elisa and the Tinker were doing a regular transaction but as you climb deeper and deeper into the story, one can say “The Chrysanthemums” portrays ideas of gender inequality and gender stereotyping- problems that still exist in the world today.